42 Entertainment and the mystery surrounding
Nine Inch Nails‘ Year Zero
At first it seems like any other YouTube video.
Some one‘s pointing the camera out a car window as a desert land scape rolls
by. But then thunder crashes, and what appears to be a giant hand made of black
smoke reaches down from the sky.
The only clue to the clip‘s provenance is a
road sign that flashes past so quickly you have to hit PAUSE to make it out: I
AM TRYING TO BELIEVE. There‘s no music, no credits. Nothing to indicate that it
is, in fact, a teaser for Nine Inch Nails‘ new album, Year Zero. The clip, and dozens of other online clues, form the
latest salvo in a burgeoning new style of promo called alternate-reality gaming
(ARG). Part scavenger hunt, part online game, these elaborate puzzles are
created by a clandestine startup called 42 Entertainment. The goal: to blend
fiction and reality in ways that engage a new generation of fans.
Just don‘t call it marketing. “The term
‘marketing‘ sure is a frustrating one for me,“ NIN mastermind Trent Reznor
recently blogged. (He and reps from 42 Entertainment declined to be
interviewed.) “What you are now starting to experience is ‘Year Zero,“ Reznor wrote. “It‘s not some kind of gimmick to get you
to buy a record - it is the art form. . . and we‘re just getting started.“
Based in Pasadena, California, and the Bay Area, 42 Entertainment
sports an all- star team of marketing and gaming vets whose experience runs
from Procter & Gamble product launches to designing rides for Disneyland. ARG, they believe, is the next
frontier - and their mindbending online campaigns for the likes of Dream Works,
Microsoft and Disney are often more compelling than the products being pushed
“The eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old demo has
grownup in a marketing-saturated environment and has developed a sophisticated
set of tools for avoiding the vast majority of marketing messages,“ Jordan
Weisman, 42‘s co-founder, has said. “As a rule of thumb, the bigger the neon
sign, the faster they‘ll run the other way. So the premise here was, instead of
shouting, go the opposite way and whisper.“
Year Zero‘s strange life started in February,
when a fan noticed that his NIN concert shirt had the words I AM TRYING TO
BELIEVE encoded on the back. A quick Googling revealed a “Website of the same name.
The site warns of Parepin, a drug put into the water supply by the feds that
may be causing you to see stuff like a giant hand descending from the sky
(photos included). E-mail the Webmaster and you get an auto response in which
he inexplicably changes tune: “It is now clear to me that Parepin is a
completely safe and effective agent. I‘m drinking the water. So should you.“
Cryptic new Web sites keep popping up online,
elaborating on the conspiracy. There are phone numbers to dial, wiretap transcripts
to decipher. At NIN concerts in Portugal and England, fans found computer memory sticks
in bathroom stalls containing Year Zero
songs. The clues are coming at such a rate that there‘s a Wikipedia entry and
forums of NIN nerds teaming up to keep track.
“It engages fans to the point where they can
actually feel like they are an important part of the marketing of the album,“
says Mike Swindley, the twenty-four year-old administrator of the NIN fan site
Echoing the Sound. “It makes me feel like I‘m fifteen again.“
For Reznor, a lifelong gamer, that‘s the idea.
As a kid, he drew early inspiration from video games, once going so far as to
pry off the back of an Asteroids machine just to peer inside. Since then, he
composed the soundtrack for the game Quake
and stopped recording The Fragile to
play Halo upon its release. “It put me back a few days,“ he said at the time.
“But what‘s a few days when there‘s something important to do?“
Some pioneers warn that ARG can get too geeky
for its own good. “The most difficult thing is striking the balance between
accessibility and making it too complicated,“ says Mike Benson, executive vice
president of marketing for ABC, which ran the Lost Experience online game to
promote its hit show last year.
“ARG law has always been to not let anybody
know you‘re doing ARG,“ says Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of NBC’s Heroes, which is currently developing a
game. “I think that keeps a lot of people from playing. So we are actively
trying to lower the barrier of entry [by] being open about what we‘re doing -
to get more than the usual D&D-type guy involved.“
With the Year
Zero buzz growing, Reznor has proved that harnessing the power of music
geeks may be victory enough.
42 ENTERTAINMENT‘S GREATEST HITS
2001 The Beast
A murder mystery promo for Steven Spielberg s
AI that fans unraveled via websites, emails and faxes the Beast put 42- and ARG
-on the map.
2004 I love Bees
The ARG for Halo 2 grew into a radio drama that
played out over pay phones across the country; participants would record the calls
then stitch them together to hear a teaser for the game.
2006 Dead Man’s Tale
The ARG for Pirates of the Caribbean 2 used Windows Live Messenger to
throw players into a dialogue with the film’s Billy Bones. As you IM’d puzzles
and games were unleashed.
2007 Vanishing Point
An ad on the Internet Explorer blog led nerds
on a cross country bunt and helped promote Microsoft ‘s Vista OS. The clues appeared
everywhere - from skywritten ads to the Bellagio fountains in Vegas.